Larson’s first career win in Michigan cuts Chase spots down to only three

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Kyle Larson’s first career win last week at Michigan made him the 13th driver to win in the first 24 Sprint Cup races which means there are only three Chase spots available.

Two races remaining until NASCAR’s version of the playoffs begin at Chicago, Sept. 18. Some of the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place Sunday night at Darlington Raceway for the famed Southern 500.

This used to be NASCAR’s featured race of the season every Labor Day weekend. It began in 1950 and while NASCAR took the date away during its rapid expansion – greed was the real reason – last year it made a return back to its rightful spot on the schedule at Darlington and everyone embraced it.

The track painted the facility just the way it was in the 1950’s, and the teams got into the theme as well with retro paint schemes. For the past two months, every team has been unveiling their Darlington paint schemes, and they all look pretty cool. You’re going to do a double take wondering if David Pearson, Cale Yarborough or Junior Johnson is driving.

Beyond the historical element added, the best thing about races at Darlington is the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval that features high banks and with four different corners. No matter how skilled a driver is ‘The Lady in Black’ always manages to give away some Darlington stripes, which is the marking she leaves on the right side of the car when drivers can’t stop from slapping the wall.

Darlington is a tough track for all, which is why it’s often called “The Track Too Tough To Tame.”

The first handicapping tool is that all the teams will be running the regular package that has been run with most of the year that Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated with. There have been 24 races run this season and a Gibbs car has won 11 of them. If we back out the three restrictor-plate races and the three races with the new low downforce package, a Gibbs car has won 10 of the 18 events. That is an incredible ratio of success.

While Darlington is configured like no other on the circuit, we can still apply a lot of what we’ve seen already in the six races run on 1.5-mile tracks. Then, let’s back out the July 9 race at Kentucky, won by Brad Keselowski, because it used the low downforce package and now we’re looking at the last three winners using the regular package on 1.5s coming from the Gibbs stable. This is where we’ll start for this week, and there’s one Gibbs driver that has been very well liked by ‘The Lady in Black’.

No one has been better than Denny Hamlin at Darlington. How does a 6.5 average finish sound in 10 career starts? The track definitely hasn’t been too tough for Hamlin to tame. His lone win there came in 2010 and he’s been runner-up three times. Last year he finished third. The track just suits his style and you can believe between his own skills and the Gibbs equipment that he’ll be running in the top-five for most of the race.

Hamlin and his crew have been in a Chase simulation mode the past few races and they probably wish it was the real deal happening now because they are in their absolute best form of the season with six straight top-10 finishes, including his first win at Watkins Glen.

He’s a good bet right now to win his first Sprint Cup Championship at 12/1 (Westgate SuperBook) and if you do some searching around town, you might find a sports book that overlooks him this week and posts him at 10-to-1 or higher. NASCAR isn’t a priority right now for the books with football starting, so there could be an opportunity to catch one of them sleeping at the wheel in other areas, such as this week’s Southern 500.

Twitter: @MicahRoberts7

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